Counting Wild Tigers by 2016: Will It Help Save Them?

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 14, 2014 11

There are more captive tigers living in American backyards than there are in the wild. (This tiger was photographed in captivity.) ©John T. Andrews

On Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 13 countries that have wild tiger populations agreed to take part in a global census of the endangered big cats. The hope is that this count will then lead to improved policies to protect them in order to meet a goal of doubling their numbers by 2022—a plan known as Tx2.

The 13 “tiger countries” are: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India (where half of all wild tigers live), Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. The estimate for tigers remaining in the wild is 3,200, a number that was last agreed upon in 2010.

Shockingly, there are more captive tigers living in American backyards, and most of those are privately owned.

Despite the fact that since 2010 we’ve thought there are only about 3,000 wild tigers left in the world, their numbers have continued to plummet. Will a new count do anything to help save them?

Threats to zebras include habitat loss, climate change and hunting. ©Eric Rock

Poaching and power plants

The pledge to count the world’s tigers by 2016 was made at a conference in September in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Experts say that although the tiger population is thought to have remained stable over the last four years, the guesstimate of 3,200 is hindering efforts to create effective strategies for protecting the animals and that updated, science-based data is needed.

A century ago, the world had 100,000 tigers roaming through 30 nations, from Turkey east to Siberia and throughout Southeast Asia down to the tip of Indonesia. But human encroachment on the cats’ habitat and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade are blamed for tiger declines. Forested habitat, even within protected areas for tigers, has diminished over the last 10 years. In Bangladesh, experts fear a giant, 1,320-watt, coal-fired power plant on the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest—the world’s biggest and home to one of the largest tiger populations—will pollute the water, threatening the cats’ ability to thrive there. And while tiger populations have risen in certain major “tiger range” nations—such as India, Nepal and Russia—poaching continues to be a major problem. Statistics from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network, show that at least 1,590 tigers—an average of two a week—were seized between January 2000 and April 2014.

In the end, will counting tigers count?

Counting the number of animals left in any population or species, of course, is a tried-and-true conservation tool. After all, we don’t know if an animal is endangered unless we have the low numbers to prove it. Conversely, we wouldn’t know when to take a species off an endangered list when it recovers if we don’t count the number of individuals.

In Southeast Asia, the human population is exploding. Will there be room for tigers? ©Drew Hamilton

But we seem to have an obsession with counting animals lately, and I’m not sure it has done anything to curb our astonishing loss of wildlife. For example, every year since 1900, there has been an Audubon Christmas Bird Count, yet some once-widespread species in North America have decreased in number as much as 80 percent since 1967. In Kenya, Grevy’s zebras were counted in 2008 and again in 2012. In 2008, there were 2,450 of the zebras. In 2012, that number was 2,647; not much of a jump and certainly dramatically less than the estimated 15,000 in the 1970s. None of these counts has seemed to stem the tide of rampant loss.

The good news is that tigers are resilient. They were nearly wiped out 74,000 years ago when a supervolcano eruption at Sumatra’s Lake Toba sent the planet into a volcanic winter, erasing scores of Asian mammals. Tigers came back from just a few individuals to repopulate the continent. An average female can rear six to eight cubs over her 10- to 12-year lifespan; so if the cats, their prey and their habitats are given protection, there’s hope that they’ll bounce back.

If the 2016 tiger count shows that there are less than the 3,200 wild tigers in the world that we now think there are, will anything change for the big cats? I just hope that the little more than 3,000 that are here now can hang on for two more years, when even more proof—evidence that we seem to need in order to implement better and stricter protections for the cats—arrives.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. madison August 2, 2016 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    Tigers are so adorable but why are people killing them I wish people would start saving them.

  2. Neil Cosentino November 16, 2014 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Tigers – my favorite animal – thanks for the Heads-Up!

  3. Vijaya Rao October 17, 2014 at 5:43 am - Reply

    Counting Wild Tigers is an important exercise to keep a tab on their population and keep a realistic check on their dwindling status. However, merely counting their numbers will not guarantee growth of their pride. Tigers being territorial need space of their own to live and flourish their cubs. To make human interference in tiger zones should be a strict no no there should be a count on the number of interference cases which have been resolved (punished by law) or are pending. Tigers attract poachers for their bones and skin. There should be a data bank of terrains prone to poaching and constant vigil on tiger habitats with exemplary punishments for poachers. A Tiger population monitoring body should be made responsible in each forest area to adopt some number of tigers for observation and studies. With increase in their population more territories would be needed. Tiger corridors should be enabled for their free movement from one location to another. Saving Tigers is an ongoing process with diverse parameters to be cared for. Only then does counting have a real meaning.

  4. Lucy Gichinga October 16, 2014 at 8:35 am - Reply

    I agree with some of those who’ve commented that the UN should be involved. However, we should not wait till 2016, since there are still a few tigers left, these states should focus on their tigers and give them full protection so as to avoid losing them to poachers. As for the poachers, strict measures should be taken.Governments should also deal with poverty and unemployment issues in their states as I feel this is one of the key drivers of poaching.

  5. willem riedijk October 15, 2014 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    It is always good to know what you have This will enable the tiger protecting people to make better plans to save and develop the now existing tiger population

  6. Steve Whitty October 15, 2014 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Maybe it is a case of too little, too late.

  7. Brian Bastarache October 15, 2014 at 8:52 am - Reply

    The first step to sound, scientific wildlife management (or management of anything for that matter) is to assess the current situation so that goals may be established and then plans created and implemented to achieve the set goals. There is never enough money invested in anything that is truly important. Wildlife/environmental conservation has been chronically underfunded and therefore able to be little more than crisis management.

    (Assuming that we do not already have them) we must have reliable estimations of tiger populations to move forward. We need them tomorrow, but that won’t happen.

  8. Sinnadurai Sripadmanaban October 15, 2014 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Counting alone won’t preserve endangered species.UN should declare killing those animals as crime & punish governments who do not monitor them.

  9. M Cotton October 15, 2014 at 6:14 am - Reply

    It is not the counting that protects tigers per se, but censuses have a role, if conducted honestly, to raise awareness amongst the general public, local communities as well as providing a level of snapshot performance indicators. For real conservation management input, sustained annual camera trap censuses over extended timeframes are required such as Nepal / ITNC Lomg therm tiger monitoring project completing 20 years in Chitwan National Park.

  10. Veronica Baker October 15, 2014 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Why wait? Act now. A lot can happen in two years. When there is an emergency does anyone wait until it is all over and the harm has already happened and it is then too late. No time like the present. Sounds more like a political platform unfortunately.

  11. Matthew Sánchez October 14, 2014 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    I have mixed emotions much like it sounds you do as well, about a census of the tiger population. It seems like a waste of resources when we already are sure that the tiger numbers are alarmingly low. Even if the population has risen, I doubt it will be by much, meaning that all we’ll gain from doing a census is the knowledge that tigers need to be protected; something that we already know. In addition we’ll have lost valuable resources that could have gone directly to protecting this species.

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